Dinner for Lawmakers, Paid for by Lobbyists, Was Legal Only Because There Aren’t Any Ethics Rules Yet

Photo of North Dakota lawmakers and lobbyists taken while attending a conference in Nashville. Photo via Rep. Jake Blum

Recently a group of 29 North Dakota lawmakers took a trip to Nashville, Tennessee, which cost the taxpayers nearly $90,000.

You probably haven’t heard much about it since both Republicans and Democrats were on the trip and most of our media commentators are so thoroughly addled by partisanship they get frozen when the controversy is bipartisan. But the Minuteman Blog has a thorough report of the trip, and it raises some questions in the context of new ethics rules in the process of being implemented in our state.

More on that in a moment.

Per the records below the Nashville trip – which was to attend a summit of the National Conference of State Legislatures – cost $89,987.98 for meals, lodging, mileage, airfare, per diem, and miscellaneous expenses (there was some legislative staff on the trip in addition to the elected leaders). On top of that, the State of North Dakota paid $129,770 to the NCSL for membership dues.

That’s a lot of money, and while I’ve seen the NCSL be useful to the legislative process here in North Dakota in terms of providing data to inform policy decisions, I’m not convinced it’s over $200,000 worth of useful.

But that’s not really the issue at hand.

This trip was approved by Legislative Management. House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, who is the chair of Legislative Management specifically wrote a letter to lawmakers asking them to justify the trip by filling out a report detailing what information they gathered (see below).

Where the ethical questions come in is the fact that a number of lobbyists were also on the trip to Nashville. Per the Minuteman post, a photo from Nashville was put on Facebook by Rep. Jake Blum (R-Grand Forks) and features a number of lawmakers who were on the trip along with Ryan Kelly, Lacee Bjork Anderson, Donnell Preskey, Don Larson, and Megan Smith Houn who are all registered lobbyists in the State of North Dakota.

Here’s the photo, which Blum has since taken offline:

“A lobbyist may not knowingly give, offer, solicit, initiate, or facilitate a gift to a public official. A public official may not knowingly accept a gift from a lobbyist,” the North Dakota Constitution, as amended by Measure 1, states. That section of the law goes on to state that a gift “means any item, service, or thing of value not given in exchange for fair market consideration, including gifts of travel or recreation.”

Did the lobbyists on this trip buy anything for the lawmakers? If they did, how would we know, and would that have been illegal?

I made some calls to find out, and the folks I spoke with initially said the lobbyists didn’t pay for anything.

“No, we were very careful about that,” Rep. Blum told me when I asked him if he saw lobbyists buying anything of value for lawmakers. “I understand the ethical implications of that. Since Measure 1 passed we all have to be cognizant of that. We have to abide by the will of the people.”

“I think the conference was very valuable, and I think the things we gathered as legislators are things we can bring back to the state and put to work,” he added.

I also asked him why he took down his Facebook photo.

“I think it was unfortunate judgment on my part to post that,” he said. “A lot of these folks are my friends and I probably shouldn’t have done that.”

“The ethics commission, they haven’t adopted any rules. So we’re governed by the statues that are in place. If the lobbyist expends a certain individual on one occassion they’re required to report it, but the legislators that were present and any staff that were present don’t have a reporting requirement at this point.”

Why unfortunate judgment if nothing untoward was going on? “We weren’t [doing anything wrong] but I understand the optical thing, you know?” Blum responded.

“I wouldn’t be able to speak to that. I’m pretty notoriously the guy who goes to the meeting during the day and then goes off and does his own thing,” Rep. Matthew Eidson (D-Grand Forks) said when I contacted him about the trip. Pressed on whether he witnessed any gifting between lawmakers and lobbyists he said, “Not that I saw, no.”

How would people in North Dakota know if it was happening all the way down in Nashville? “Off the top of my head, other than somebody catching it happening in action, I don’t know of any sort of reporting that has to happen with that specifically when it comes to drinks or food from lobbyists,” Eidson said.

Rep. Mary Schneider (D-Fargo), however, said there was at least one event where the source of funds was in question. She wasn’t sure who paid for a dinner at the Country Music Hall of Fame attended by the North Dakota contingent at the summit. “I don’t know who was in charge of the North Dakota dinner, or how that was paid for, but there were lobbyists at it. I wasn’t in charge of the arrangements for it, but there were lobbyists at it.”

“There definitely were lobbyists who were attending [the summit],” Schneider added, “but I don’t…nobody offered me anything. I can’t think of anything that wasn’t sponsored by NCSL.”

“It was really an excellent, excellent conference with a lot of things of value to bring back to the state,” she continued.

John Bjornson, director of Legislative Council, was also on the trip and said the dinner Rep. Schneider referred to was paid for by lobbyists.

“There were a number of sponsors. I don’t have the list. Some of the people you probably saw in that picture were sponsors. Every year at NCSL they have state nights where everyone gets together for dinner. This year there were 30 or 40 sponsors,” he said.

Is that against the law?

“No it’s not,” Bjornson said, but only because the rules mandated by Measure 1 haven’t been written yet. “The ethics commission, they haven’t adopted any rules. So we’re governed by the statues that are in place. If the lobbyist expends a certain individual on one occassion they’re required to report it, but the legislators that were present and any staff that were present don’t have a reporting requirement at this point. So we’re basically operating under the same statutes we have been for some time until the ethics commission adopts some rules that specifically address that.”

“I can’t tell you at that dinner if there was any lobbying which met the definition of lobbying under that statute. It’s a social sort of thing. It’s viewed as a social event where lobbying isn’t really acceptable,” he added.

Ronald Goodman, the newly-appointed chair of the newly-formed North Dakota Ethics Commission, agreed with Bjornson that things are in flux.

“It’s all too new for us. We got our commission as of September 1st, so 11 days ago. We don’t have any rules of any kind. I have no answer for you. It’s something that we’re going to be discussing as time goes by. There’s nothing I can get to you today,” he said.

“I’m not commenting on whether it’s legal or illegal, all I can tell you is we haven’t made any rules,” he added.

The commission has a meeting coming up, but Goodman said the focus is going to be on things like hiring staff and finding office space. He also said he wasn’t aware of the Nashville trip.

To sum up, the big dinner paid for by lobbyists would probably be illegal if the state ethics commission had rules in place (it’s worth noting that Measure 1 delayed its prohibitions on gifting for two years while the ethics commission is set up) but even after those rules are in place can they be effectively enforced? Lawmakers won’t stop going to conferences any time soon, and they’ll probably be seeing lobbyists at those conferences, and if a drink or a steak dinner gets purchased, who is going to know about it?

I was an opponent of Measure 1 for a lot of reasons, but among them was the practicalities of enforcing it. Lobbying isn’t going away, nor should it. What I’m afraid of is that by trying to regulate those interactions we’re not making them more ethical but rather driving them underground.

Rep. Blum posted a picture of lawmakers and lobbyists together in Nashville, but then took it down fearing the optics. I suspect that sort of thing will become the norm as the ethics commission writes its rules.

Does that leave our legislature more transparent? Because it seems like the opposite.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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